While there is still much to learn about the recent removal of a Mat-Su woman from her home, and forced “evaluation” under title 47, initial actions by authorities seem to indicate that HB172 did not go far enough in reforming this Alaska Statute and protecting your individual rights.

Despite what you may hear, it is important to understand that a health crisis emergency hold is not an arrest.  There are no criminal consequences for these holds; and there are no arrests under civil commitment proceedings.  This emergency and temporary hold lasts only until the person gets to the proper facility (such as a crisis center) to be evaluated by a clinician.

Under Title 47, prior to HB172 and SB120, police in fact could place a person under an emergency hold. They could not, however, simply “show up at someone’s door and make an arrest” citing only mental health reasons. HB172 did not change that. To show up at your door and pick you up, there would need to be either an existing ex parte order, from a judge, or the police had to be there for another legitimate reason (such as an investigation or welfare check). They would then have to find a mental health crisis with you being a danger to yourself or others.  HB 172 does not grant additional authority to police or any other first responders to enter your home, or to make any arrest. 

HB172 was the 32nd legislature’s attempt to correct Title 47 after the State of Alaska lost a lawsuit in October of 2018. The lawsuit involved citizen(s) undergoing a mental health crisis being forced to wait in jails or emergency rooms when a bed in an evaluation facility (such as API) was not available. So, the greatest “patient right” HB 172 created was the ability to steer people away from situations where they were forced to wait in emergency rooms, or Alaska Correctional Institutions, for days without access to proper behavioral health treatment. In the bill on page 10; lines 8-13, subsection (e) sets out the computation of time that someone can be held at either a crisis stabilization center (23 hours and 59 minutes) or at a crisis residential center (seven days).  Unlike the underlying title 47, both time periods include Saturdays, Sundays and legal holidays.  

Section 18 of the bill amends AS 47.30.710 to add a new subsection (c) to require the mental health professional to apply for an ex parte order if a judicial order is not in place, which further ensures that patients are not held without judicial process. Under the current law (prior to HB172), health providers can already take someone into custody without consent for seven days; but instead of into an outpatient setting like the crisis clinic for less than one day, it would be into a hospital that might bar visitors or into a jail all without the added patient and citizen protection rights that are in HB172.

This bill also allows the paramedics to transport a person for an evaluation to an outpatient clinic where they can’t be kept without a hearing, AND the patient gets an attorney. In our enormous state we do not have law-enforcement officers close enough to where all residents live. A person could be endangered or put others’ lives in danger, and we must be able to let the paramedic or the physician at the local primary care clinic attend to the person to get them to the crisis clinic for help.

HB172 also contained several sections with language that deals with notification of a parent or guardian if the person in mental health crisis was a juvenile; and includes language for parental notification prior to the administration of any psychotropic drugs.

In the recent case of the Mat-Su woman, the court’s portion of the law seems to have worked properly, with the judge allegedly denying two requests for ex-parte commitment. Nevertheless, a mental health involuntary commitment and evaluation did happen. This makes a discussion on what HB172 did, and what it did not do, imperative.  

On the record, however – in the Senate debate of this bill – Senator Shelley Hughes said, at least four times that it would be a direct violation of law for a person to be taken into custody for political or religious beliefs. A person can only be taken into custody if they are gravely disabled, meaning in immediate danger or causing immediate danger AND have clear signs of a mental health crisis that can be seen or heard.

Finally, keep in mind that the troopers were acting on what they thought (and what was presented to them) was a valid order from a judge. Most of what happened to our friend and neighbor was already authorized under title 47. This statute was also amended by previous statute (SB120) in the 31st legislature.

It is unfortunate that HB172 was so wildly mischaracterized and subsequently misunderstood. And I am not sure of the political agenda of those who would put out the intellectually dishonest information that HB172 had some sort of evil or nefarious intent on the part of the governor or Legislature. This bill was simply a means to correct an issue with title 47, and increase your rights, not limit them. In fact, it was supported by Psych Rights, a law project for psychiatric rights, and many other mental health entities as a step in the right direction.

Obviously, there are more steps needed to protect your rights, but the changes to title 47 via HB172 did not create the most recent issue. And, in fact, HB172 may have been of some benefit in this case which was arguably filled with human error on many levels.

HB172 has it’s own FAQ page for those who might want to look into what it does, and does not, do.

The views expressed here are those of the author.

OPINION: Rep. McCabe offers clarification on HB172

Rep. Kevin McCabe
Rep. Kevin McCabe is a 40-year Alaskan, retired U.S. Coast Guard and currently a captain on Boeing 747s for a major international cargo airline. He and his wife live in Big Lake, an area he represents as a member of the Alaska House of Representatives.